Crawling to the first tightening move

Crawling to the first tightening move

There was a lot of hoopla yesterday over the FOMC removing the word “patient” from its statement.  But when you read the sentence that replaced the sentence containing the word patient, you shouldn’t think that much has changed:

Consistent with its previous statement, the Committee judges that an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate remains unlikely at the April FOMC meeting. The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term. This change in the forward guidance does not indicate that the Committee has decided on the timing of the initial increase in the target range.

There are two contingencies here, which are both subject to considerable latitude in interpretation:

  • Seeing further improvement in the labor market
  • Being reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term

I have long argued that the FOMC doesn’t have a strong theory for what they are doing, and have designed their language in speaking to the markets to maximize their flexibility.  It has not been the obfuscation of the overly confident Greenspan era, but the endless blather that comes from trying to be “transparent” and drown the market in communications, because they never quite understand us properly.

Now, for the first time in a while, the FOMC statement shrank, and for that, I thank the FOMC.  It should shrink further, and it would be better if the FOMC said nothing, and went back to pre-Greenspan practices, and let the actions of the Open Markets Desk at the New York Fed do the talking.  Deeds, not words.

Now, data isn’t the same as deeds, and they aren’t always as clear as words, but the FOMC gave us a release of the forecasts of its members yesterday.  The graphs in this piece reflect the central tendency of their estimates, giving proper weight to the dominant views, as well as less weight to the views from the outliers.

Start with the graph at the top of this article.  The average of all of the views suggests tightening in September.  Now, with 15 favoring a move in 2015, a move will likely happen this year.  If you look back through their data releases, a preponderance of opinion has pointed to 2015 since September of 2012, with never fewer than 12 members pointing to a move in 2015 since then.

But what of the shift in opinions regarding the level of the Fed Funds rate over time?  What happened to that with the removal of the “patient” language?

My but they got more dovish...

My but they got more dovish…

Look at the reduction in the expected end of year Fed Funds rate — down 0.35% in 2015 (to 0.77%), 0.51% in 2016, 0.32% in 2017, and 0.12% in the long run.  That last number is significant, because of the change in composition of those giving opinions, and it indicates a more generally dovish group.

But the downward moves in values indicate fewer tightening moves for 2015 — at present the estimate would be 2-3 quarter-percent moves. (And five more eaches in 2016 and 2017, for those who dream that savers might get some compensation, and that the government’s budget works at higher levels of interest rates)

A big reason for the shift is the move in views on PCE inflation:

Still behind the deflationary curve...

Still behind the deflationary curve…

That’s a 0.59% move down in PCE inflation estimates for 2015. Odds are, it will be lower than that. The FOMC as forecasters always chase trends, and rarely get ahead of them. They also believe in the power of monetary policy to produce inflation, and more perversely, growth. As it is, their actions have produced little of either.

It does explain why their estimates for 2016 and beyond are so high. Would any of the members dare to break from the lockstep, and concede that monetary policy does not have significant power to affect the economy for good?

Here is the real GDP graph:

Down, down, down...

Down, down, down…

Note the continued move down in estimates for all future periods. Interesting to see the pessimistic shift.

Finally, the unemployment rate graph:

Discouraged workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but...

Discouraged workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but…

There are many jobs to be had, if people will search for them, and if they think the wages are worth taking, versus alternatives of leisure, working in unreported labor markets, etc…

Conclusion

Looking at the data, the FOMC certainly isn’t hawkish at present. That is consistent with the change in language in the statement, which left timing for any future hikes in the Fed Funds rate vague, and subject to interpretation. This explains the fall in the US Dollar, and the rise in the prices of stocks, long bonds, and commodities. The markets viewed it all as continued monetary lenience, and given the composition of voting members on the FOMC, that should come as no surprise at all.

Until something breaks, expect the FOMC to continue to err on the side of monetary lenience… it’s the only thing they know.

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson

January 2015March 2015Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a solid pace.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January suggests that economic growth has moderated somewhat.Shades GDP down.
Labor market conditions have improved further, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate.  On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish.Labor market conditions have improved further, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate. A range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish.No change.
Household spending is rising moderately; recent declines in energy prices have boosted household purchasing power.  Business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.Household spending is rising moderately; declines in energy prices have boosted household purchasing power. Business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow and export growth has weakened.Shades down their view of exports.

 

Inflation has declined further below the Committee’s longer-run objective, largely reflecting declines in energy prices.  Market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined substantially in recent months; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Inflation has declined further below the Committee’s longer-run objective, largely reflecting declines in energy prices. Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Notes flattening of implied future inflation rates.  TIPS are showing lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 1.94%, down 0.09% from January.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators continuing to move toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators continuing to move toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.No change. They are no longer certain that inflation will rise to the levels that they want.
The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced.  Inflation is anticipated to decline further in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of lower energy prices and other factors dissipate.  The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. Inflation is anticipated to remain near its recent low level in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of energy price declines and other factors dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.CPI is at -0.2% now, yoy.  No change in language.
To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate.  In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.  This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.
Based on its current assessment, the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy.  However, if incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee’s employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated.  Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.Consistent with its previous statement, the Committee judges that an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate remains unlikely at the April FOMC meeting. The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term. This change in the forward guidance does not indicate that the Committee has decided on the timing of the initial increase in the target range.Removes the concept of patience.  Looks for further labor market improvement, and an increase in inflation expectations – this is less than meets the eye, because it all still remains contingent.  It is in the eye of the beholder.

No rules, just guesswork from academics and bureaucrats with bad theories on economics.

The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction.  This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.  Changing that would be a cheap way to effect a tightening.
When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.Deleted.
The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.Deleted.
When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.  The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent. The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.“Balanced” means they don’t know what they will do, and want flexibility.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.We need some people in the Fed and in the government who realize that balance sheets matter – for households, corporations, governments, and central banks.  Remove anyone who is a neoclassical economist – they missed the last crisis; they will miss the next one.

Comments

  • I will still argue that this was a nothing-burger. The patience language was eliminated, but what were left in its place were contingent conditions that are subject to a wide degree of interpretation.
  • Pretty much a nothing-burger. Few significant changes.  The FOMC has a weaker view of GDP and exports.
  • Despite lower unemployment levels, labor market conditions are still pretty punk. Much of the unemployment rate improvement comes more from discouraged workers, and part-time workers.  Wage growth is weak also.
  • Forward inflation expectations have continued to fall.
  • Equities rise and long bonds rise. Commodity prices rise and the dollar falls.  The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • Don’t know they keep an optimistic view of GDP growth, especially amid falling monetary velocity.
  • The FOMC actually chops out “dead wood” from its statement. Brief communication is clear communication.  If a sentence doesn’t change often, remove it.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain’t moving rates up, absent improvement in labor market indicators, much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.
  • We have a congress of doves for 2015 on the FOMC. Things will be boring as far as dissents go.  We need some people in the Fed and in the government who realize that balance sheets matter – for households, corporations, governments, and central banks.  Remove anyone who is a neoclassical economist – they missed the last crisis; they will miss the next one.

Media Credit: Terence Wright

Media Credit: Terence Wright

This will be a short post. If we get a significant updraft in the price of oil, and Saudi production policy has not changed, you might want to sell crude oil price-sensitive assets. The marginal cost of production for a lot of crude oil that is shale related is around $50/barrel, and that is where I think the market “equilibrium” will bounce around for a few years, until global growth picks up.

I hold my positions for longer periods of time, so I may not do much off of this, but I would expect crude oil prices to be range-bound for a few years, with all of the volatility which a global commodity can have.

That’s all folks.

Photo Credit: Thibaut Chéron Photographies

Photo Credit: Thibaut Chéron Photographies

I wish I could tell you that it was easy for me to stop making macroeconomic forecasts, once I set out to become a value investor.  It’s difficult to get rid of convictions, especially if they are simple ones, such as which way will interest rates go?

In the early-to-mid ’90s, many were convinced that interest rates had no way to go but up.  A few mortgage REITs designed themselves around that idea.  Fortunately, I arrived at the party late, after their investments that implicitly required interest rates to rise soon, fell dramatically in price.  I bought a basket of them for less than book value, excluding the value of taxes that could be sheltered in a reverse merger.

For some time, the stocks continued to fall, though not rapidly.  I became familiar with what it was like to go through coercive rights offerings from cash-hungry companies in trouble.  Bankruptcy was not impossible… and I burned a lot of mental bandwidth on these.  The rights offerings weren’t really good things in themselves, but they led me to buy in at a good time.  Fortunately I had slack capital to deploy.  That may have taught me the wrong lesson on averaging down, as we will see later.  As it was, I ended up making money on these, though less than the market, and with a lot of Sturm und Drang.

That leads me to my main topic of the era: Caldor.  Caldor was a discount retailer that was active in the Northeast, but nationally was a poor third to Walmart and KMart.  It came up with the bright idea of expanding the number of stores it had in the mid-90s without raising capital.  It even turned down an opportunity to float junk bonds.  I remember noting that the leverage seemed high.

What I didn’t recognize that the cost of avoiding issuing equity or longer-term debt was greater reliance on short-term debt from factors — short-term lenders that had a priority claim on inventory.  It would eventually prove to be a fatal error, and one that an asset-liability manager should have known well — never finance a long term asset with short-term debt.  It seems like a cost savings, but it raises the likelihood of insolvency significantly.

Still, it seemed very cheap, and one of my favorite value investors, Michael Price, owned a little less than 10% of the common stock.  So I bought some, and averaged down three times before the bankruptcy, and one time afterwards, until I learned Michael Price was selling his stake, and when he did so, he did it without any thought of what it would do to the stock price.

Now for two counterfactuals: Caldor could have perhaps merged with Bradlee’s, closed their worst stores, refinanced their debt, issued equity, and tried to be a northeast regional retail player.  It didn’t do that.

The investor relations guy could have given a more understanding answer when he was asked whether Caldor was having any difficulties with credit lines from their factors.  Instead, he was rude and dismissive to the questioning analyst.  What was the result?  The factors blinked and pulled their lines, and Caldor went into bankruptcy.

What were my lessons from this episode?

  • Don’t average down more than once, and only do so limitedly, without a significant analysis.  This is where my portfolio rule seven came from.
  • Don’t engage in hero worship, and have initial distrust for single large investors until they prove to be fair to all outside passive minority investors.
  • Avoid overly indebted companies.  Avoid asset liability mismatches.  Portfolio rule three would have helped me here.
  • Analyze whether management has a decent strategy, particularly when they are up against stronger competition.  The broader understanding of portfolio rule six would have steered me clear.
  • Impose a diversification limit.  Even though I concentrate positions and industries in my investing, I still have limits.  That’s another part of rule seven, which limits me from getting too certain.

The result was my largest loss, and I would not lose more on any single investment again until 2008 — I’ll get to that one later.  It was my largest loss as a fraction of my net worth ever — after taxes, it was about 4%.  As a fraction of my liquid net worth at the time, more like 10%.  Ouch.

So, what did I do to memorialize this?  Big losses should always be memorialized.  I taught my (then small) kids to say “Caldor” to me when I talked too much about investing.  They thought it was kind of fun, and I would thank them for it, while grimacing.

But that helped.  Remember, value investing is first about safety, and second about cheapness.  Cheapness rarely makes something safe enough on its own, so analyze balance sheets, strategy, use of cash flow, etc.  This is not to say that I did not make any more errors, but this one reduced the size and frequency.

That said, there will be more “fun” chapters to share in this series, because we always learn more from errors than successes.

Here is the second part of my interview on RT Boom/Bust. It was recorded while the FOMC was releasing its statement, so I had no idea at that time as to what the announcement had been.

The interview covers my view of Apple (not one of my strong points), Fed Policy, and what should value investors do in this low interest rate environment. Note that not all of my opinions are strong ones, and that in my opinion is a good thing. Often the best opinions are not controversial.

If you are interested in these topics, or listening to me, then please enjoy the above video. My segment is about seven minutes long.

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey

December 2014January 2015Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in October suggests that economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a solid pace.Shades GDP up. This is another overestimate by the FOMC.
Labor market conditions improved further, with solid job gains and a lower unemployment rate. On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish.Labor market conditions have improved further, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate.  On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish.Shades their view of labor use up a little.  More people working some amount of time, but many discouraged workers, part-time workers, lower paid positions, etc.
Household spending is rising moderately and business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.Household spending is rising moderately; recent declines in energy prices have boosted household purchasing power.  Business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.Interesting how falls in energy prices are treated as permanent by the FOMC, while rises are regarded as transient.

 

Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices. Market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined somewhat further; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Inflation has declined further below the Committee’s longer-run objective, largely reflecting declines in energy prices.  Market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined substantially in recent months; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Shades their forward view of inflation down.  TIPS are showing slightly lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.03%, only down 0.04% from December.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators moving toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators continuing to move toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.No change. They are no longer certain that inflation will rise to the levels that they want.
The Committee sees the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. The Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of lower energy prices and other factors dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced.  Inflation is anticipated to decline further in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of lower energy prices and other factors dissipate.  The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.CPI is at 0.7% now, yoy.  They shade up their view down on inflation’s amount and persistence.

Okay, so here they regard the energy price declines as transitory.

To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments.To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate.  In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.  This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change. Highly accommodative monetary policy is gone – but a super-low Fed funds rate remains.  Policy normalizes, sort of, but no real change.
Based on its current assessment, the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy.Based on its current assessment, the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy.No change.  In other words, we’re on hold until something goes “Boo!”
The Committee sees this guidance as consistent with its previous statement that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time following the end of its asset purchase program in October, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and provided that longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.Sentence removed, but I doubt that it means much.
However, if incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee’s employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated. Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.However, if incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee’s employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated.  Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.Tells us what we already knew.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction.  This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.  Changing that would be a cheap way to effect a tightening.
When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.No change.
The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.No change.
When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.  The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.“Balanced” means they don’t know what they will do, and want flexibility.  They are not moving anytime soon.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Stanley Fischer; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.

Voting against the action were Richard W. Fisher, who believed that, while the Committee should be patient in beginning to normalize monetary policy, improvement in the U.S. economic performance since October has moved forward, further than the majority of the Committee envisions, the date when it will likely be appropriate to increase the federal funds rate; Narayana Kocherlakota, who believed that the Committee’s decision, in the context of ongoing low inflation and falling market-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations, created undue downside risk to the credibility of the 2 percent inflation target; and Charles I. Plosser, who believed that the statement should not stress the importance of the passage of time as a key element of its forward guidance and, given the improvement in economic conditions, should not emphasize the consistency of the current forward guidance with previous statements.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.A congress of doves for 2015.

Things will be boring as far as dissents go.

We need some people in the Fed and in the government who realize that balance sheets matter – for households, corporations, governments, and central banks.  Remove anyone who is a neoclassical economist – they missed the last crisis; they will miss the next one.

Comments

  • Pretty much a nothing-burger. Few significant changes.  The FOMC has a stronger view of GDP and Labor, and deems the weak global economy to be a reason to wait.
  • Despite lower unemployment levels, labor market conditions are still pretty punk. Much of the unemployment rate improvement comes more from discouraged workers, and part-time workers.  Wage growth is weak also.
  • Forward inflation expectations have flattened out.
  • Has the FOMC seen how low the 30-year T-bond yield is?
  • Equities fall and long bonds rise. Commodity prices are flat.  The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • Don’t know they keep an optimistic view of GDP growth, especially amid falling monetary velocity.
  • The FOMC need to chop out more “dead wood” from its statement. Brief communication is clear communication.  If a sentence doesn’t change often, remove it.
  • In the past I have said, “When [holding down longer-term rates on the highest-quality debt] doesn’t work, what will they do? I have to imagine that they are wondering whether QE works at all, given the recent rise and fall in long rates.  The Fed is playing with forces bigger than themselves, and it isn’t dawning on them yet.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain’t moving rates up, absent improvement in labor market indicators, much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.\
  • We have a congress of doves for 2015 on the FOMC. Things will be boring as far as dissents go.  We need some people in the Fed and in the government who realize that balance sheets matter – for households, corporations, governments, and central banks.  Remove anyone who is a neoclassical economist – they missed the last crisis; they will miss the next one.

Photo Credit: Snowshoe Photography

Photo Credit: Snowshoe Photography

This should be a short post. Weather forecasters deserve to be double-checked, as there has been a tendency among weather broadcasters to sacrifice accuracy for ratings, which can be goosed in the short run by offering a good scare.

I offer the most recent snowstorm as a partial exhibit. There is a real cost to misforecasting, as this article from USA Today points out:

The lost wages and tax revenue from stores and others businesses that shut down early Monday and kept employees home Tuesday, in anticipation of something far more … dramatic.

The vacations, business trips and job interviews disrupted by the pre-emptive cancellation of thousands of airline flights across the Northeast. The extra aggravation caused Monday by those two words that every working parent of school-age children dreads: early dismissal.

All the overkill adds up, in ways that may be impossible to tease out precisely.

Now, many actions are due to a need for caution, but caution needs to be kept in bounds, lest the costs of businesses and government grow without any value gained.  Maybe my bias comes from growing up in Wisconsin, because we were always ready for bad weather, and at least in that era, rarely canceled anything in the winter.

My second observation stems from hurricane forecasting.  Both the overall estimates of the number and severity of storms for the season and the individual estimates of likely severity seem to be biased high.  Again, I blame the need for high ratings.

Yes, we get occasional monster years with hurricanes, like 2004 and 2005.  We also get freak storms like Katrina and Sandy that cause a lot of damage from the degree of flooding that accompanies some severe storms.

As an analyst of insurance companies that insure against many of the losses that come from these storms, it has taken an iron constitution to keep from trading out of loss-exposed insurers when I think the forecast is overly pessimistic.

On a personal level, it is good to be prepared for the kinds of catastrophes common to the area in which you live, regardless of the current predictions.  But where weather affects your business or your investing, I would encourage you to double-check severe weather forecasts to see if they make sense before taking actions as a result.  There are costs to being wrong on each side, so be careful.

Photo Credit: Storm Crypt || Ah, to be in Zurich, and enjoy the additional purchasing power of the Franc

Photo Credit: Storm Crypt || Trusting the Swiss National Bank, Really?

Significant currency brokers relied on the Swiss National Bank to keep its currency peg in place. Now some of them are insolvent, and many of their clients also. Should they be surprised? Currency pegs put into place for political reasons rarely hold up, and this has happened in Switzerland in the past.

On thing I learned early in my career is that you never bet the firm. You never allow there to be a single point where a change brings failure.

You don’t rely on the kindness of strangers. In markets, always ask “What are the motives of the other players?” As an example, think of all of the people who lost money on auction rate preferred securities. There was no guarantee that auctions would always succeed, or that if one failed, the sponsor would take up the slack. No, when they failed, those that relied on the implicit idea that “auction rate preferreds are a safe reliable way to earn extra money in the short run” got hosed.

That’s why I say be wary, particularly where politically motivated entities like Central Banks are involved.  Are you certain that the Fed will tighten this year, and that interest rates will rise?  Do be so certain; people have been betting on that for some time, and the Fed is more than happy to let things slide until something forces their hand, or they think the risks of a move are minuscule.  Though we are at record lows for the 30-year Treasury, rates could go lower still.

Credit: Bloomberg

Credit: Bloomberg

Who knows?  Maybe rates go low enough that someone relying on them to remain above a certain level gets forced to buy into a high market already, and put in the top for prices, and bottom for yields.

On the other hand, there are some that argue that the Fed can’t raise rates because then the US Government would have problems financing its deficit if interest rates rose.  Maybe, but I wouldn’t rely on that, either.  I’ve been long long Treasuries for quite some time, but we are getting near the points where Hoisington and Schilling have suggested the trade might be over. Add onto that that banks may finally be starting to lend, and maybe indeed, we are near the bottom for interest rates. I just would not rely on it and make a one way bet.

In my next segment on “Learning from the Past,” I’ll go over my first really major loss where I traveled on the coattails of a famous value investor and lost royally. The point is: don’t rely on the kindness of strangers. Analyze where things can go wrong, and where other parties may have a different view than you do. Why are you smarter than they are? If they are in a position of power, what makes you think they will use it in your favor, rather than act in their own interests? As an example, just because the banks were bailed out last time does not mean that it will happen next time. The players and politics could be vastly different, with policymakers finally realizing that they only have to protect depositors, and nothing more.

So be wary.  More next time, and I should be returning to a more regular blogging schedule once again.  My extracurricular project nears completion.  More on that later also.

Photo Credit: PSParrot

Photo Credit: PSParrot

Happy New Year to all of my readers. May 2015 be an enriching year for you in all ways, not just money.

This is a series on learning about investing, using my past mistakes as grist for the mill.  I have had my share of mistakes, as you will see.  The real question is whether you learn from your mistakes, and I can say that I mostly learn from them, but never perfectly.

In the early 90s, I fell in with some newsletter writers that were fairly pessimistic.  As such, I did not do the one thing that from my past experience that I found I was good at: picking stocks.  Long before I had money to invest, I thought it was a lot of fun to curl up with Value Line and look for promising companies.  Usually, I did it well.

But I didn’t do that in that era.  Instead, I populated my portfolio with international stock and bond funds, commodity trading funds, etc., and almost nothing that was based in the USA.  I played around with closed-end funds trying to see if I could eke alpha out of the discounts to NAV.  (Answer: No.)  I also tried shorting badly run companies to make a profit.  (I succeeded minimally, but that was the era, not skill.)

I’ve been using my tax returns from that era to prompt my memory of what I did, and the kindest thing I can say is that I didn’t have a consistent strategy, and so my results were poor-to-moderate.  I made money, just not much money.  I even manged to buy the Japanese equity market on the day that it peaked, and after many months got out with a less-than-deserved 3% loss in dollar terms because of offsetting currency movements.

One thing I did benefit from was learning about a wide number of investing techniques and instruments, which benefited me professionally, because it taught me about the broader context of investing.  That said, it cost time, and some of what I learned was marginal.

But not having a good overall strategy largely means you are wasting your time in investing.  You may succeed for a while with what some call luck, but luck by its nature is not consistent.

Thus, I would encourage all of my readers to adopt an approach that fits their:

  • Knowledge
  • Personality
  • Available time

You have to do something that you truly understand, even if it is hiring an advisor, wealth manager, etc.  You must be able to understand the outer edges of what they do, or how will you evaluate whether they are serving you well or not?  Honesty, integrity, and reputation can go a long way here, but it really helps to know the basics.

Picking fund managers is challenging enough.  How much of their good performance was due to:

  • their style being in favor
  • new cash flows in pushing up the prices of the assets that they like to buy
  • a few good ideas that won’t be repeated
  • a clever aide that is about to leave to set up his/her own shop
  • temporary alignment with the macroeconomic environment
  • or skill?

Personality is another matter — some people don’t learn patience, which cuts off a number of strategies that require time to work out.  Few things also work right off the bat, so even a good strategy might get discarded by someone expecting immediate results.

Time is another factor which I will take up at a later point in this series.  The best investment methods out there are no good for you unless you can make them fit into the rest of your life which often contains the far more important things of family, recreation, faith, learning, etc.  It’s no good to be a wealthy old miser who never learned to appreciate life or the goodness of God’s providence in life.

And so to that end, I say choose wisely.  My eventual choice was value investing, which isn’t that hard to learn, but requires patience, but can scale to the time that you have.  For those that work in a business, it has the side-benefit that it is the most businesslike of all investment methods, and can make you more valuable to the firm that you work for, because you can learn to marry business sense with your technical expertise, potentially leading to greater profit.

For me, I can say that it broadened my abilities to think qualitatively, complementing my skills as a mathematician.  The firms I worked for definitely benefited.  Maybe it can do the same for you.

Till next time, where I tell you how value investing is *not* supposed to be done. ;)

PS — one more note: it is *very* difficult to make money off of macro insights in equities.  Maybe there are some guys that can do that well, but I am not one of them.  Limiting the effect of my insights there has been an aid to doing better in investing, because it forces me to be modest in an area where I know my likely success is less probable.

Photo Credit: International Monetary Fund

Photo Credit: International Monetary Fund

October 2014December 2014Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in September suggests that economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in October suggests that economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace.No change. This is another overestimate by the FOMC.
Labor market conditions improved somewhat further, with solid job gains and a lower unemployment rate. On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources is gradually diminishing.Labor market conditions improved further, with solid job gains and a lower unemployment rate. On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish.Shades their view of labor use up a little.  More people working some amount of time, but many discouraged workers, part-time workers, lower paid positions, etc.
Household spending is rising moderately and business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.Household spending is rising moderately and business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.No change.

 

Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s longer-run objective. Market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined somewhat; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices. Market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined somewhat further; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.Shades their forward view of inflation down.  TIPS are showing slightly lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 2.07%, down 0.28% from September.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the “statutory mandate,” it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators and inflation moving toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators moving toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate.They are no longer certain that inflation will rise to the levels that they want.
The Committee sees the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. Although inflation in the near term will likely be held down by lower energy prices and other factors, the Committee judges that the likelihood of inflation running persistently below 2 percent has diminished somewhat since early this year.The Committee sees the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. The Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of lower energy prices and other factors dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.CPI is at 1.3% now, yoy.  They shade up their view down on inflation’s amount and persistence.
The Committee judges that there has been a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market since the inception of its current asset purchase program.Sentence removed.
Moreover, the Committee continues to see sufficient underlying strength in the broader economy to support ongoing progress toward maximum employment in a context of price stability. Accordingly, the Committee decided to conclude its asset purchase program this month.Sentence removed.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction.Moves this sentence lower in the document.
This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.Moves this sentence lower in the document.
To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments.To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments.Highly accommodative monetary policy is gone – but a super-low Fed funds rate remains.  Policy normalizes, sort of, but no real change.
Based on its current assessment, the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy.In other words, we’re on hold until something goes “Boo!”
The Committee anticipates, based on its current assessment, that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time following the end of its asset purchase program this month, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and provided that longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.The Committee sees this guidance as consistent with its previous statement that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time following the end of its asset purchase program in October, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and provided that longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.No real change.
However, if incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee’s employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated. Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.However, if incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee’s employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated. Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.Tells us what we already knew.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.Sentences moved from higher in the document.
When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.No change.
The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.No change.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Stanley Fischer; Richard W. Fisher; Loretta J. Mester; Charles I. Plosser; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Stanley Fischer; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; and Daniel K. Tarullo.

 

Voting against the action wasVoting against the action were Richard W. Fisher, who believed that, while the Committee should be patient in beginning to normalize monetary policy, improvement in the U.S. economic performance since October has moved forward, further than the majority of the Committee envisions, the date when it will likely be appropriate to increase the federal funds rate;Fisher thinks the economy is healthy enough to take some rate hikes.
Narayana Kocherlakota, who believed that, in light of continued sluggishness in the inflation outlook and the recent slide in market-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations, the Committee should commit to keeping the current target range for the federal funds rate at least until the one-to-two-year ahead inflation outlook has returned to 2 percent and should continue the asset purchase program at its current level.Narayana Kocherlakota, who believed that the Committee’s decision, in the context of ongoing low inflation and falling market-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations, created undue downside risk to the credibility of the 2 percent inflation target;

 

 

Kocherlakota wants to create another bubble, along with the rest of the doves.
and Charles I. Plosser, who believed that the statement should not stress the importance of the passage of time as a key element of its forward guidance and, given the improvement in economic conditions, should not emphasize the consistency of the current forward guidance with previous statements.Plosser wants to say that a shift has happened, when no shift really has happened in policy.  He also thinks they should avoid the idea that the Fed is waiting to do something, suggesting that tightening could come sooner.

 

Comments

  • Pretty much a nothing-burger. Few significant changes, if any.  The only interesting thing is that they have given up on inflation getting anywhere near 2% for now.
  • Despite lower unemployment levels, labor market conditions are still pretty punk. Much of the unemployment rate improvement comes more from discouraged workers, and part-time workers.  Wage growth is weak also.
  • Equities flat and long bonds rise. Commodity prices are flat.  The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • Don’t know they keep an optimistic view of GDP growth, especially amid falling monetary velocity.
  • The FOMC chops some “dead wood” out of its statement. Brief communication is clear communication.  If a sentence doesn’t change often, remove it.
  • In the past I have said, “When [holding down longer-term rates on the highest-quality debt] doesn’t work, what will they do? I have to imagine that they are wondering whether QE works at all, given the recent rise and fall in long rates.  The Fed is playing with forces bigger than themselves, and it isn’t dawning on them yet.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain’t moving rates up, absent improvement in labor market indicators, much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.